Milestones of Missouri's Hidden Hollows

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

Historians have long held that during his famous 16th century expedition into the United States, De Soto died in Arkansas in 1542 and did not reach the Missouri territories.

But in 1993, a commission of prominent De Soto scholars released newly translated, highly controversial, 400-year-old Spanish accounts stating otherwise. According to Donald E. Sheppard, who traced De Soto's Missouri route for the group, the expedition found salt (sodium chloride) at Saline Creek, on the Missouri side of the river, then saltpeter (potassium nitrate) first near Pilot Knob (beyond Farmington) and later near the White River in the Branson neighborhood.

The conquistadors eventually ran out of gunpowder as they fought the Indians on their push into the vast wilderness of the United States. Their discovery of saltpeter in Missouri was of great importance. The Missouri sites were the only places, according to Sheppard, where saltpeter was found by De Soto's people in North America. They used their firearms as clubs thereafter or made horseshoes with them!

Saltpeter miners were the first Europeans to place an indelible stamp upon the history of Missouri caves. The saltpeter mining, which may have begun with De Soto, was resumed by Phillip Renault in the 1720s and carried to its greatest heights in Missouri in the early 1800s by Gen. William H. Ashley.

But 19th century Missourians had many other uses for caves, and this lineage of utilitarian values, spanning more than 200 years, is the fabric that weaves the early milestones of Missouri cave history together.

People used Missouri caves as taverns, barns, spring houses, beer and wine cellars and sites for social gatherings, political events and religious services. This was because the caves were available and conveniently warm in winter and cool in the summer. Settlers harnessed spring-fed cave streams to provide power for paper mills, woolen mills, sawmills and gristmills.

By the 1840s, caves in the St. Louis area were attracting German brewers from the old country. A new industry was thus born, transforming St. Louis into a Midwest brewing center. Without the caves, which have a natural temperature range of 52 to 60 degrees 365 days a year, this brewing industry might not have been possible in St. Louis in the days before the availability of electricity.

The Civil War period represents a dark interlude in this march through time. Caves often served as rendezvous points for troop movements, hideouts for guerrilla forces and slaves and, during the Reconstruction years, safe havens for outlaws.

By the 1880s, a new era had arrived. Mark Twain popularized Missouri caves in the fictional adventures of Tom Sawyer. People came from all over the world to see the cave Mark Twain wrote about, and public demand for other caves to visit brought about the opening of Missouri's first real show caves. Another new industry sprang up in Missouri--underground tourism.

Until well into the middle of the 20th century, most people generally thought of caves as little more than landscape curiosities without significant value, unless they could be used commercially. Landowners often considered caves a nuisance and a liability. Until the late 1950s, there was no scientific imperative or widely held conservation ethic to protect caves and their contents. But the caves did interest scientists.

The first report on Missouri caves published by a Missouri geologist appeared in 1868 and was written by Garland C. Broadhead. In the 1880s, Ruth Hoppin, an amateur biologist, captivated American zoologists with her discovery of blind albino fish and crayfish in caves around Sarcoxie. During the same time period, Missouri's pioneer female geologist, Luella Agnes Owen, dared the conventions of her gender and time by exploring the caves of the Ozarks to determine their geologic origin. Her book,

Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills of South Dakota, published in 1898, became a classic.

As the 19th century turned, archaeology got a toehold in Missouri caves through the work of Gerard Fowke. Prominent in his day but somewhat eccentric, Fowke carried out the first large-scale excavations of central Missouri caves in search of Indian burials and artifacts. Toward the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Carl Chapman, founder of the Missouri Archaeological Society, introduced the concept of the prehistoric utilization of Missouri caves.

Hundreds of Missouri caves were used by prehistoric Native American cultures for shelter, burial and ceremonies and as a source for water, clay, flint and minerals. Human burials, artifacts and rock art still bear silent witness to the way the Indians used Missouri caves over a period of some 10,000 years.

The last century brought change, plus two notable events in the 1930s. William Morris Davis, a geologist, published a major paper on the origin of limestone caverns. J Harlen Bretz, a distinguished geologist at the University of Chicago, tested the Davis hypothesis by doing fieldwork in the caves of the Ozark Uplift of southern Missouri. His research, supported by Missouri State Geologist Edward L. Clark and subsequently Thomas R. Beveridge, resulted in the publication of the book Caves of Missouri in 1956.

The Bretz study and book were more than just academic achievements and a scientific milestone, they were endeavors that captivated Missouri cave enthusiasts, laymen and scientists alike. Thomas R. Beveridge, who was instrumental in seeing that the Bretz book got published, and Henry Douglas of the Virginia Cave Survey, who gave the early Missouri cavers much advice, provided inspiration for the birth of the Missouri Speleological Survey (MSS) in 1956. Dr. Oscar Hawksley, a biologist from Warrensburg; Jerry Vineyard, a geologist from Dixon and Frank Dahlgren, a machinist from St. Louis, founded the MSS.

Founders designed the MSS, a non-profit consortium, to unite the cave-oriented ambitions, skills, knowledge, enthusiasm and dedication of both amateurs and professionals. Its membership was open to anyone who demonstrated responsibility in cave conservation and gave evidence in some form of reciprocating efforts towards the goals of the MSS.

To facilitate its work and provide a permanent repository for material gathered by its many affiliate caving groups, the MSS entered into a cooperative agreement with the Missouri Geological Survey and Water Resources (now the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Division of Geology and Land Survey). State Geologist Thomas Beveridge extended a hand of friendship to the cavers. It was a handshake that would bear fruit and foster a partnership that would last for generations to come.

The accomplishments of the MSS since 1956 toward a better understanding of and appreciation for our Missouri cave resources are legion. Volunteers of the MSS have recorded, mapped and reported on thousands of caves in the state. In 1985, the efforts of Missouri cavers received attention when the MSS received a national Volunteer Action Award for their service and community spirit.

But state involvement in caves actually began before the creation of the MSS and its partnership with a branch of state government. The State of Missouri officially acquired its first caves in the period 1923 to 1928 with the creation of several state parks containing caves and springs, including Meramec State Park. Two of the more than 30 caves in Meramec State Park were used as show caves and operated as concessions.

In 1933, Missouri passed legislation enabling the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to start defining areas for a national forest. By 1945, the USFS had created the Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF). Its 1.25 million acres contains hundreds of caves, but it would be decades before true cave resource management would begin on the forest.

"When I started with the U. S. Forest Service 30 years ago," says Jerry Gott, a recently retired cave management specialist for the MTNF, "there was little emphasis or resource attention given to the management of caves. Thanks to some laws related to endangered species, caves as an environment for these species have gotten the public's attention. With the passage of the 1988 U.S. Cave Resource Protection Act, the Forest Service is now much more involved in cave management than in the past."

In the 1960s, Congress established the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Dent, Shannon and Carter counties, and the Eleven Point National Scenic River in Oregon County. The National Park Service soon discovered there were hundreds of caves on these properties in need of special attention.

Also in the 1960s, a long standing tradition of fierce competition between the many show caves of Missouri ended when they joined together to form the Missouri Caves Association. It became apparent to them that since no two caves are really alike, it was better to work together to reach their mutual audience than to compete.

In the 1970s, the Conservation Department, influenced by endangered species laws, began acquiring numerous tracts of land to preserve forest and wildlife resources and protect threatened and endangered species. In some instances the Conservation Department has specifically targeted cave resources used by the Ozark cavefish and endangered species of bats.

With government agencies acquiring significant karst areas of the state, an imperative was born to protect and manage cave resources with conservation and preservation in mind.

Conservationists discovered that Missouri caves were home to rare and delicate life forms, contained invaluable prehistoric human and extinct ice age animal materials, were ornamented with beautiful, unique, fragile cave formations, contained vast reservoirs of water and were sensitive components of the major spring systems and groundwater aquifers of the Ozarks.

The Missouri Cave Resources Act was passed in 1980. It protects caves by prohibiting vandalism of any type and recognizes the value of caves. It also maintains the right of private cave owners to manage or use their caves, as they see fit. The law also helps protect the quality of Missouri's groundwater by prohibiting the use of a cave or spring for sewage disposal or other pollution-causing activities.

In the late 1970s, DNR's Division of State Parks began adding parks to its system where karst and caves were a focus of interpretation and visitation. The DNR manages more than a dozen parks containing wild caves, as well as several parks with major show caves.

By the early 1980s, under contractual agreements, members of the MSS and Cave Research Foundation teamed up to inventory cave resources on government lands in Missouri so the agencies could make wise decisions in the development of their cave management plans. The agencies own fully one-fifth of the more than 5,500 caves recorded in the state.

And in 1993, cavers of Missouri took a bold step into the future by organizing the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy (MCKC) with the help of the Ozark Regional Land Trust (ORLT). Today, in partnership with ORLT and the Conservation Department, the MCKC is assisting in the purchase and management of a cave in southwest Missouri that protects the endangered Ozark cavefish. The MCKC also has purchased its first large wild cave in south central Missouri and looks to the future when it will own and manage other important cave resources throughout the state. After four decades of cave inventory, mapping and database building by the MSS, Missouri cavers also are becoming cave owners.

These are but a few of the significant milestones of Missouri cave history but they take us from the days when Europeans first set eyes upon the American heartland to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Missouri caves, once largely ignored unless they could be used or mined, have finally gained a measure of respect and protection for their inherent values. Hopefully, we now have the mechanisms in place to save the very best of these remarkable, non-renewable, irreplaceable natural resources and their precious wildlife.

Caving Safety

In Missouri, the most common caving hazard is hypothermia caused by exposure to 55 degree water. Some have drowned in cave flash floods, so keep an eye on the weather.

Newcomers to caving, should visit a grotto (caving club) and go through training. A list of these grottos is available from the Conservation Department, or at <http://www.umsl.edu/~joellaws/ozark_caving/ozgrott.htm>.

Cavers should always observe the following precautions

  • Wear a climbing helmet or hardhat with a sturdy chinstrap.
  • Wear an electric headlamp on the helmet, rather than carry a flashlight, so that your hands will be completely free for crawling and climbing.
  • Wear sturdy old clothes or coveralls, work gloves and good (but not expensive) hiking boots. If it's a wet cave you may need long johns or even a wet suit.
  • Carry two other reliable sources of light in a small backpack or fanny pack, plus new batteries and spare bulbs.
  • Never go caving alone or without the owner's permission. Go with at least three other experienced cavers. Always tell someone responsible where you will be and what time you will return.
  • Stay within your limits. Do not use ropes or cable ladders until you have been adequately trained by experienced vertical cavers. Do not jump in a cave. Do not climb down shafts that you cannot climb up again. Do not go underwater in a cave without being totally trained and certified as a cave diver.
  • Good caving habits: Don't smoke in caves. Tobacco smoke contains harmful chemicals and nicotine is poisonous to cave animals. Don't break speleothems (cave formations) or remove already broken ones--it is illegal, and it encourages others to break and remove them.

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